Q&AA: Ridley Scott, directing gladiator

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Credit: Illustration by Simon Prades

It's a warm, sunny morning in West Hollywood, and director Ridley Scott sits in the surprisingly quiet conference room of his film and production company, Scott Free, home to hit movies like "Gladiator" and TV series "The Good Wife" and "The Man in the High Castle." Dressed unpretentiously in a black fleece vest and long-sleeve shirt, he's surrounded by memories. On the walls hang blown-up scenes from "Alien"; a striking abstract blue-and-white painting by David Ashwell of him, his father, Francis, and his late brothers, fellow director and business partner Tony Scott and eldest sibling Frank; and the framed pages of Pauline Kael's scathing 1982 New Yorker review of "Blade Runner"—Scott's reminder to hold steadfast, he says, no matter what the critics say.

Scott Free, which was launched in 1995, sits next door to RSA Films, Scott's commercial production outfit now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Over the span of five decades, Scott's work has included the continuation of his early iconic successes ("Prometheus" and "Alien: Covenant," which he directed, and "Blade Runner 2049," which he executive produced), as well as such recent blockbusters as "The Martian." Nearly 35 years ago, Scott revolutionized the advertising landscape with the stunning "1984" for Apple, which effectively turned the Super Bowl into a platform for mini-blockbuster entertainment.
His three children—Jake, Jordan and Luke—are now directors as well, with Jake having made his own mark on the Super Bowl.

This month, Scott brought RSA Films, Scott Free and their affiliates—entertainment marketing agency 3AM, music video company Black Dog and commercial production shops Hey Wonderful and Darling—under the new umbrella of Ridley Scott Creative Group. He also curated the annual New Directors' Showcase at the Cannes Lions, a duty typically assumed by Saatchi & Saatchi.

A few weeks before the festival, Scott sat down with Ad Age and shared his thoughts on everything from filmmaking and being a businessman to why he still uses a fax machine.

Our conversation has been edited.

You started out at the BBC. Did you think that was the direction you'd stay in?

I was at BBC [for three years] and enjoyed it enormously, but I saw that it wasn't for me. And very quickly—I'm very proud of this—I learned to moonlight. I worked for the opposition: commercial TV, as well as independent directors, particularly one guy, Keith Hewitt. He was excellent and he did commercials. And I thought, "That's what I want to do for a living."

What was the first commercial you directed?

It was for Gerber baby food. The little chub refused to eat, kept sploshing food all over me.

When did you decide to go out on your own?

After the BBC, I worked for a company called Natural Breaks and it asked me to be its director. I accepted and told them, "I'm 29. I'm going to give you one year's notice. I'm leaving in a year. I'm going to start my own company."

I've always been a little bit of a cowboy. You learn by yourself, you never forget the mistakes. You can have any teacher tell you, "Don't do this" or "Don't do that" and it'll go right over your head. When you're doing it yourself, if you make a mistake, you never forget.

So what's the biggest mistake you've ever made?

Oh, I was warned about the evolution of digital. I didn't pay attention. I was too busy enjoying myself making films.

Did it matter, though? You're still here, 50 years later.

Well, it did matter. We were wrong. You've got to catch the tiger by the tail.

Let's talk "1984." It has stood the test of time.

Because it's a great story. We never showed the product, didn't discuss the product. When they brought it to me, they said, "This is for Apple." I thought they meant for the Beatles.

When did you realize it was a big deal?

I was driving into town the following day and a guy, a big Hollywood producer, called out to me and said, "Did you see the Super Bowl?" I said, "No." He said, "What? Didn't you do the ad in the Super Bowl?"

It turned the Super Bowl into something entirely new, into a forum for—

Story.

Your son Jake's done well with his Super Bowl work. What do you think of your kids directing?

Well, you know when your kids direct, you can't help them. You cannot call up anyone and say, "Give my kids a film." They have to earn their own way. Jake has made three [films]. Jordan has made one and is involved with one right now. But they're very selective and I'm less—I shouldn't say this—I'm less selective. I just tend to shoot from the hip. I think the important thing to do is just do it. If you're good at what you do, chances are, no matter what it is you're working on, you'll improve it.

How did the film work start?

I had thought, "God, I'm never going to make a movie." I had been going day to day, was constantly busy and [RSA] was growing. When Tony and I started Scott Free, which we wanted to be the long-form side, film people didn't want commercial-makers, they didn't think they could do it. But feature films looked archaic, and we knew we could improve the whole quality and level of feature filmmaking. Then I [directed 1977's] "The Duellists" and it won at Cannes [for best first feature], and I thought, "That was easy." And then I did "Alien," which was very successful, and I thought, "Gee, this is really easy." I was applying everything I'd done as a businessman to the process of bring creative.

How does that work? Where did business come in when you directed "Alien"?

I used logic. And I knew not to get bullied and not to take shit, particularly when you're right. My company was inordinately financially successful because we kept on budget. We knew what to do. Today, films go over $30 million, $40 million. Crazy! No matter how creative you are, you'd better plan, otherwise your creative will go away in a heartbeat.

Talk a little bit about "Blade Runner." It was a difficult film to make.

The beginning was terrific. "Blade Runner" is a very good example of a collaboration between a very good writer [Hampton Fancher] and a very good visual director. I constantly threw problems into the pot and I needed someone like Hampton to be able to write that stuff. He was very, very good. I knew we were making something special because every night there'd be 300 people [coming to] the set. I'd say, "How the hell did these people get through the gates?"

But there were problems.

I fell out with my financial partners. I was 42, a businessman, and when I get told I'm going to go over [budget] the day after I've gone over, that's not good business. So I went and freaked out and said, "You've got to tell me six weeks [out] when I'm approaching going over."

To cut a long story short, the film was one way or another a disaster, except for the fans. And I was crucified by the biggest critic of the time, Pauline Kael. That article over there [points to the framed magazine pages] is four pages and it gets personal. And I never met her. I was crucified, except 30 years on, guess who was right? One of the few films to literally stand the test of time. What I learned from that is never read [reviews or critiques]. And I don't.

Are you into digital devices? Which do you use?

I have a laptop and I have a mobile phone, only because it enables me to do another day's work before I get to the office.

How do you use your phone? Do you text?

Email. Anything really private or tricky, I fax. I still use a fax! So much can get lost in the digital ether.

Who's the last person you faxed?

Every morning, I receive faxes from my London office. And if anything really happened, the Hong Kong office. That's why I'm late now. I do my work with London every morning from about 7 a.m. If you do it frequently, it's less complex. When you leave it for a week, you've got a mound of stuff. I'm a really logical functionary, which is kind of how I've always made commercials and film. And I think it enabled me to be a multitasker.

You're still making great work. Is there a story you're dying to tell?

I don't like the word "genres," it sounds pretentious—it sounds better in French—but I'd love to do a Western.

Does all the activism in the world, the people fighting for social justice—there's Black Lives Matter, Me Too, March for our Lives—affect you as a storyteller?

It has to. We can use media to really great and powerful effect. If we do one more end-of-the-world film, I'll shoot myself. Being obsessed with issues is only healthy if you try and fix them, right? What car do you drive? Do you drive a BMW or a Porsche?

No, I drive a Toyota.

I drive a Prius. I got rid of all my cars. I've done cars over the years. Everything, you name it. Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Bentley. Then I thought, "What am I doing? A Range Rover? Get rid of it!" Now I've been driving a Prius for 10 years. Yet I cannot remember when I last filled it up. I haven't been in the garage for about three months.

Do you fill the car up yourself, though, or do you have someone do it for you?

I'm very DIY. See? [Holds up hands] I've got paint on my fingers.

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